Death Valley Days

So here was the deal: My wife wanted to spend New Years in Las Vegas with some of her family, and I agreed to go under one condition– she could fly with them, but I wanted to drive and then spend time painting in Death Valley and around Lone Pine, CA, on the way home. So, after a great New Years, they flew back, and I started my painting expedition on the way home.

New Years day, I drove a couple hours to Beatty, NV, which is on the eastern border of Death Valley National Park, for the night. This is where the painting adventure begins.

Jan 2 – Death Valley

I stayed in Beatty as I wanted to drive the 27 mile, one way, dirt 4×4 road through Titus Canyon into Death Valley. Taking off south from Beatty on Hwy 374 I first stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town about 5 miles south. Rhyolite was a thriving, but short lived town of about 5,000 in the early 1900’s. More about it here. Only a few building remains are still there. Here are a couple pictures (click on any thumbnail to see a larger complete image)–

Continuing south via Hwy 374, I soon came to the Titus Canyon road turnoff. You can read about the canyon here and here. Like I said, it is a dirt 4×4 road, which started out looking something like this:

It soon got more rugged and steep, climbing up over Red Pass in the Grapevine Mountains which form the eastern border of Death Valley.

Red Pass
Red Pass

As soon as I was over the pass, the first glimpse of Death Valley came into view in the far off distance, and it looked like a good scene to paint, so stopped for a couple hours. Only a couple of vehicles drove by the entire time painting. Below are a few images, of the scene, my easel, and SUV (click on any thumbnail to see a larger complete image)–

I continued down to the east entrance of Titus Canyon. The entrance was interesting, so stopped and did a smaller painting there (click on each thumbnail to see a larger complete image)–

Continuing to 4 wheel through the canyon, I can see why the road is only one way into Death Valley. The canyon is so narrow in places it was only as wide as a one lane road! In a few spots, you could almost have reached out both sides of the vehicle and touch the canyon walls. Some more pictures–

Early afternoon, I finally emerged from Titus Canyon into Death Valley. Since we were a little elevated from the valley floor, it was a great view, so did another painting right there (click on any thumbnail to see a larger complete image).

It was soon approaching late afternoon and the sun goes down early this time of year (before 5 o’clock) so I moved on to Stovepipe Wells and checked into the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel. Death Valley only has a couple lodging facilities, and this was one. The room was nice, clean, but fairly basic. No TV, telephone, or cell service, but they did have free WIFI. The only restaurant was surprisingly good considering they have a very captive audience. Desert sunsets are usually spectacular, and no exception here! Below is a picture of the last rays of the sun from just outside my motel room–

Death Valley Sunset
Death Valley Sunset

Jan 3 – Death Valley

The next day was spent around the Furnace Creek area. Someone had recommended I check out “Artists Drive” (duh.), so I did. Along the way, I encountered three fellow plein air artists from Utah painting on the side of the road, so stopped and chatted for awhile. Along my route was Badwater Basin, which at -282 ft elevation, is the lowest spot in North America. I ended up working on a painting from Artists Drive looking towards the distant Panamint Range which frames the western side of Death Valley.

Today, I ended up spending as much time exploring as painting, seeing Zabriskie Point, and Twenty Mule Team Canyon. I figured I could get one more painting in though, and headed towards Salt Creek, home of the rare, famous, and endangered Salt Creek Pupfish. The flowing creek in the middle of the parched desert was a study in contrasts and a fitting painting subject. There was even a nice bench on the boardwalk where I could sit and paint.

I had to get to Lone Pine for the evening, so packed up late afternoon and headed west. As I was climbing out of Death Valley, I stopped, turned around, and caught the last sun flaming on the Grapevine Mountain Range where I first entered Death Valley from Titus Canyon just the day before.

Death Valley Sunset
Death Valley Sunset

On the way to Lone Pine, I passed through Panamint Valley in the twilight which was also a beautiful but less famous valley.

Jan 4 – Lone Pine

I remember well our family used to drive through Lone Pine when I was a kid and we always stopped to view Mt Whitney. It had been so long, I forgot how really spectacular this area is. With scattered snow on the ground, Lone Pine was getting to the low 20’s at night, so I decided to let it warm up a bit before I ventured out.

My destination was the Alabama Hills, nestled just outside of town below Mt Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US. Alabama Hills has probably been seen by virtually every civilized person on earth. Not that they have actually been there, but it has been used in so many films, primarily westerns, it is easily recognizable. Recent movies such as Gladiator, Iron Man, Transformers, and Star Trek filmed scenes there, just to name a few. More about it here and here.

The setting and views were spectacular every turn of the road! The Sierras had just had their first big blanket of snow, and they glistened above the stark rocks of the Alabama Hills. Here are some pictures I took around the Hills, many of which show Mt Whitney in the background–

I drove around the dirt back roads and finally settled on a spot to paint right along Movie Road. Although, this area is one of the more spectacular sights I have painted, for some reason couldn’t get it right. After an hour or so, I scraped the entire canvas and started over. The second time was a little better, but still couldn’t capture it like I wanted. Below are a few shots of the location and my failed painting when I quit.

After three hours struggling on the piece, I decided to take a break and just drive around, sight see in the hills, and take photos for future studies. I am still trying to analyze why I couln’t capture the scene as I wanted. The mountains were very complex geometrically, and I tried to simplify the shapes. I also may have been making them a little too warm in color and too dark in value. I’ll analyze it back in the studio, and finish the piece there.

Jan 5 – Home
I would have liked to stay another day in Lone Pine to see if I could get a painting right, but also needed to get home for another upcoming trip. So, I left Lone Pine early in the morning for the seven hour drive home. Before leaving, I caught the sunrise on the Sierras out my motel window…what a view!!

I am hooked on Lone Pine now and want to return maybe sometime this year, and also drive up Hwy 395 for more of the eastern Sierras. There was also a lot I missed in Death Valley, so another visit or two would be worthwhile.

All the paintings need some touch up & when I get that done, will post better pictures of them.

Till next time!